Changing ʻukulele strings takes some practice, but once you get it dialed in, it’s something to look forward to. Here’s a detailed guide to make sure you change strings the right way.
When Should You Change Strings?
How often you change your ʻukulele’s strings is a matter of preference.
Some people change them every couple of weeks, some every couple of years. That said, here are some guidelines to help you know if your ʻukulele deserves some new strings.
When they become hard to tune. I find that I have to tune an old set of strings much more often than a new one. Even when I can get them in tune, they still don’t sound quite right and the intonation is off.
When one breaks. If a string breaks, unless the set is brand new, I would just replace all of the strings. If the same string breaks twice in a row in the same place, examine your ʻukulele in that location (usually the nut or saddle). There might be a sharp edge or other outside force that is weakening the string. This has nothing to do with the age of the strings and should be handled before you put on a new set.
When a string is showing excessive wear. A little bit of love-wear is okay, but when the integrity of the string is questionable, it’s time to change. Besides being much more likely to buzz, a frayed string that snaps while you are playing hurts like crazy if it hits your hand on the way by.
In general, putting a new set of strings on your uke will result in a brighter, more fresh, strong sound. So even if you don’t notice the above signs, it still may be rewarding to change strings.
How to Change Strings
Before you get started, be sure you have these things handy:
All you REALLY need to change strings are: strings! Don’t take off your old strings until you have new ones to replace them with!
Optional tools that make your life easier:
A string winder will save you a lot of time winding and unwinding the tuning pegs. I’ve just got a low budget one, but some of the fancy models like those by Planet Waves have string cutters too. Chuck Moore has one that attaches to a drill – the really efficient way!
Nail clippers are by far the best way to cut uke strings!
A tuner. Unless you want to guess where A=440 is (or have perfect pitch), keep one of these handy.
Remove the Old Strings:
Loosen the tuning machine until you can pull the string out of the machine head.
Then undo the knot at the bridge and slide the string out of the bridge hole, making sure to keep the string from scratching the surface of your ʻukulele.
I like to cut the strings close to the bridge and put my hand on the string over the sound hole. That way there isn’t enough string length to damage anything near the bridge and your hand keeps the long end tame.
I wouldn’t do this on a sensitive vintage instrument since the sudden tension change might damage the construction.
All the strings at once?
Sometimes to clean the fretboard or make the process easier, you might want to take all the strings off of your ʻukulele before restringing.
This is usually fine, but should be done with caution if you have a vintage ʻukulele that might respond negatively to being completely freed from strings. Use your judgement.
I like to change the strings two at a time so I can clean one half of the fretboard and then the other. For me this is the perfect compromise.
Tie at the Bridge
Take the new string out of its pack and feed one end through the hole in the bridge. There should be two or three inches sticking out toward the ʻukulele’s base.
Next tie a knot like this:
(I love the monster bridge and rope demonstration, but I always reverse the wind direction that’s shown here and start on the left. The only difference is that the loose end will face down instead of up – less chance of poking yourself as you play.)
Feed the end of the string through the bridge hole so that there are a few inches protruding.
Pull this short end of the string over the top of the bridge, back towards the nut.
From the left side, wrap it under and around the long end of the string and pull it to your right so it points away from the soundhole and neck.
Now pull the short end of string towards you and over itself.
Feed it under and between the bridge and first loop.
Pull it back over towards you and repeat the last step again.
The last “under” should be set in place so that the short loose end finishes over the rear corner of the bridge. It will point at the ground when you hold the ʻukulele.
Sometimes only one loop is necessary or possible for large wound C or low-G strings.
While holding the bridge knot in place, pull on the long end of the string so that the knot tightens up. Be sure to babysit it so that the protruding end continues to remain over the edge of the bridge.
How to Fasten the String if You Have Bridge Pins
Loosen the strings and pull the bridge pins and old strings out.
Tie a stop-knot on one end of the new string. You can use one of several knots, but I’ve never had trouble with a figure-8 knot like this:
Feed it into the hole in the bridge. If there is a little slot you can rest the string in, do so.
Fit a bridge pin into the hole snugly, but not too tight (if there is a groove on one side of the pin, line this up so that the string rests inside).
Pull on the long end of the string until you feel the knot settle into its home in the pin.
Push the pin in the rest of the way into the hole and continue pulling the long end until everything is tight.
How to Fasten the String if You Have a Slotted Bridge
Slotted bridges are common on old-school soprano ukes. They are simple to use once you know what you need to do.
Remove the old strings.
Tie the same figure-8 knot shown in the video above at the end of the string. Slip the string into the bridge slot upstream of the knot.
When you pull on the long end of the string, the knot should slip under the overhang in the bridge and come to a stop, holding the string in place.
Secure the String at the Headstock
Pull the long end of the string across the fretboard and up the center of the headstock. The string should end up in-between the two sets of tuning pegs. This means that every string should exit its turn on the tuning peg towards the center of the heastock.
Pull the string through the hole in the tuning peg.
In general, small strings come up to pitch slower than larger strings.
This means I pull the A string as tight as I can while I tighten it. But I give myself a couple inches of slack when tightening the low-G string. This is the most ambiguous part of changing strings and will take some experimenting.
Tightening the String
Now place the string in the correct nut-slot and start winding the string onto the tuning peg.
The G and C tuning pegs should turn counter-clockwise as you tighten the string. The E and A pegs should turn clockwise. This keeps the strings running up the center of the headstock, like so:
This helps the strings cross the nut at the shallowest angle. If the string makes an extreme bend in the nut slot it can bind and cause tuning trouble.
Depending on if you have friction/planetary tuners or regular geared tuners you’ll have to turn the knob a different direction. The former is easy to figure out since it’s a straight peg thru the headstock.
Geared tuners are less intuitive. Looking at them straight-on, all the knobs turn counter-clockwise to tighten the strings. But since two are pointing up and two are pointing down, it can be confusing.
Watch the string as you tighten the peg to make sure you’re going the right way!
The first time around the peg, the string should go over the short, protruding end. The rest of the winds should go under the short end.
This sandwiches the loose end between two tensioned wraps, holding the string from slipping.
For the smaller strings you might need to tie a knot at the tuning peg to stop the string from slipping. Check out Ukulele’s by Kawika for a diagram of the best knot (fig 4).
Tuning to Pitch
Keep an eye on your bridge knot and the tuning peg as you increase the pitch. Put a tuner on your uke at this point and refer to it as you get the string close to where it should be.
At first, the string will slip out of tune almost as fast as you can turn the peg. As you tune it more times it will begin to settle in.
Repeat the restringing process for the rest of the set.
I usually tune up to pitch once and then move onto the other strings, returning to tune each every time I finish a new string. By the time I get to the end, the string I started with will be fairly settled.
Even after you have all the strings on and up to pitch, they will continue to stretch for a few days.
To help speed up the process, I like to play the new strings for a while, retuning as much as needed to give them a jump start. Some people just put their ʻukulele in the case overnight and retune the next day.
To really speed up the settling-in time, you can physically stretch the strings. This pulls the slack out of the knots and tuning peg winds and also wrings out the slack in the string itself.
However, there are differing views of thought about this. Some say that it wrecks intonation to stretch the strings and avoid doing it at all costs. Others yank on them until they stay in tune.
Personally, I adopt a middle ground and lift the string gently off the saddle and pull on it to make sure the bridge knot is cinched tight. Then I lift the string out of the nut slot and repeat the same at the tuning peg.
If you want to try stretching the entire string, you can do so by lifting it off the 12th fret an inch or two, then retuning.
Finishing Up the Job
Once you know that the ʻukulele is holding its pitch, it’s nice to tidy things up by trimming the loose string ends.
I do this with a big pair of nail clippers. I cut the end at the tuning peg so that there’s 1/4-1/2″ of overhang (just in case the string slips a bit it won’t pull all the way out).
At the bridge I lift the loose ends up and get my clippers under them, clipping almost as close to the bridge knot as I can. This results in about 1/8-1/4″ of leftover.
If you tie your knot correctly, it’s very uncommon that the string will come loose here. Hence the short trim.
Becoming an Experienced ʻUkulele String Changer
Changing strings is an art. It takes time and experience to do it well.
You’ll feel awkward and clunky the first time you do it. But once you’ve done a handful of string changes you’ll start to get the hang of it.
After doing it so long I can usually do a string change in 10-15 minutes, no problem. You’ll get just as fast and find your own tricks for making the job better and easier.
For more reference, Aldrine does a good job explaining how to change strings in this video: